In June, it was revealed that Facebook had conducted a research study on more than 600,000 of its users to determine whether it could change their emotions by manipulating their news feeds. The answer was “yes.”

Apparently, Facebook considered this research study to be fully justified because they had gotten “informed consent.”  In Facebook’s view, this “informed consent” was obtained when users clicked on the button to agree to Facebook’s Data Use Policy that included a clause that read – We use the information we receive about you […] for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.

Facebook is not alone in manipulating or exploitating individuals without their real consent.  Consider: medical release and indemnification forms – sign it or you don’t see the doctor. Rental car agreements – agree or forget about getting a car. Airport inspections – want to fly? Agree to be searched. Parking lot tickets – try to find someplace else to park or agree to accept any damage to your vehicle.

Manipulation and coerced consent can also be an issue in the workplace. Some “how to” guides on improving safety can be interpreted as suggesting coercion is an appropriate approach.

As an OH&S professional, ask yourself – When my organization institutes programs to “improve safety” has there been agreement and consent on the part of those who will be impacted – or are the methods being suggested really coercion?

Situations where individuals are being coerced or manipulated without their consent can raise a number of ethical issues.  This includes situations where individuals have no realistic alternatives.

In some cases, coerced consent may be necessary.  The classic example is isolation of an individual to prevent the spread of an infectious disease.  In other situations, it may be completely unacceptable.  For example, when employees are told to keep quiet about safety concerns or be fired.